Anatomy of a hip-hop song: Local producers weigh in on what it takes to make a great track
Lenny Lenn is a pretty straightforward guy. He doesn't beat around the bush when it comes to giving his opinion, and he tends to streamline his thoughts and work, leaving little room for a drawn out process.
He's the director. Preferring to lead his charge through the whole process of creating a song, even through the post production, and he has no qualms about his control and demand. "I like to control the project, that way it goes through the chops and loops that I want it to. I prefer to make complete songs so that I can work off of that notion that I saw it all the way through to the end."
As influences, he cites Teddy Riley, DJ Premier, Timbaland, Kanye West, Dr. Dre and others who have taken an aggressive tone in carving out their niche amongst those who create the blueprint of music. He gave us insight on both the technique and inspiration behind creating the perfect production session.
Westword: What does it mean to be a producer?
Lenny Lenn: To me, a producer is somebody that sees the song all the way through, not just make the beat for it, working with the artist to bring the best out of them. If you're a producer, you want that single, you want that song, not just a beat or whatever.
When you think of dynamic producers, who comes to mind immediately?
Quincy Jones Jimmy Jam and Terry Lewis, DJ Quik, Kanye West, Organized Noize, Teddy Riley, Puffy.
What do they all have in common?
They try to create that hit. Quincy Jones did Thriller, and there will never be another Thriller. He created a full body of work. I'm not taking anything away from Michael Jackson, but there would be no Thriller without what he did. People think because they make a beat that people bob their heads to, that they're a producer. Producers help create cadences and melodies and things like that.
And you're saying that it's different than beatmaking?
A lot of people just make beats and stockpile beats, and they'll get with an artist and go through a couple different beats, and chances are the beat maker isn't even in the studio at the time that the artist is recording. A beat maker and a producer are two totally different things. Just because you make beats doesn't mean you produce the song. The producer could have hired you to come in and make the beat, and then they take it over from there.
Do producers have a more technical ear than beat makers?
Having a technical ear and training in music theory and knowing how to read and play music definitely helps you understand melodies and tone, keys -- just because you can sing or have a good singing voice doesn't mean you'll sound good on this track. You have to know what pitch is, melody, chord progression, all of that. I don't think it's necessary but it damn sure helps. I wish I knew how to read music because I don't. I know producers that know how to read and play music. It definitely gives them an advantage.
When you produce for an artist, do you always look for the style they work best with?
If I'm going to work with an artist I don't necessarily go in and we start recording. I may sit with them and talk with them, play video games, find out what type of person they are. For me, it's a vibe. If I don't like you, or I don't like your music, I can't work with you. I don't care how talented you are. When I hear something, I may think it may be dope for Ike or Haven, so I'm always looking for what fits a particular song. Not all beats are for all artists. As a producer, you have to know who you're working with talent-wise in terms of artist and musicians.
When you think about the anatomy of production as you've defined it, it is more about directing.
I think so. Yes. Whatever you produce, you want it to be that hit, that new hot single. That's what you aspire to be, that hit track, not just the bonus track. That's what a producer does. They take all the resources, put them together and give you that perfect result.
Who is Lenny Lenn as the producer?
Lenny Lenn is the director. I don't play music, but I know musicians. I can get an artist and bring out the challenge in them. I make them step outside of their comfort zone and give the people something they're not expecting.
What are you like in the studio?
Ah! [laughs] Very controlling. But at the same time, I allow that artist to be that artist, but we gotta get work done. It's not all about going to smoke or drink and call bitches. We have to get the work done. I don't wanna micromanage them, but we have to have some structure in order to pull it together. I pay a lot of attention to different stuff. It's not so much what you say but how you say it. I go a lot off of body language.
When you go in to make a beat, what is the thing you build first?
Tempo. Then I just go with how we feel.
Can you name the top three most eloquently produced albums of any genre?
Thriller, Dark Side of the Moon, The Chronic.